Primavera Sound – the major headlines from the 2019 edition

The chief talking points from the festival that never stands still

The dates are way off here. Primavera hasn’t only run for three hot nights for years. It starts earlier in the week, earlier in the month, earlier in the year, with fringe events and shows (that especially support local acts) covering increasing distance across the city of Barcelona. Or it definitely starts the night before, with a lineup that is free to all; the festival’s gift to the people of Barcelona for embracing this world event over the last 19 years, this year featuring a well-worth-your-no-money set from Justin Vernon’s and Aaron Dessner’s Big Red Machine.

And it doesn’t finish on the Saturday anymore either – there’re closing parties the following day, and probably closing closing parties after that. Primavera Sound has become huge and welcomingly endless, which applies to its 3 key nights too, because making the complete run from 5pm to 5am each day makes you something of a worry to your friends.

So how do you write about all that without it becoming unwelcomingly endless? This year we’ve decided to break the long weekend down into the instinctive headlines as we found them, from the seemingly trivial to the moment FKA Twigs did the splits upside down 10 feet up a pole at 3am.             

We started by watching Stephen Malkmus give the weirdest talk of all time

Primavera Pro is the festival’s day conference, situated in the CCCB in the centre of town near the university. It can be an effort to get to when you’ve been up all night, but that’s not us yet and Stephen Malkmus is this year’s ‘10 Favs’ guest, showing his favourite 10 clips from cinema that utilise music. Should be fun. And it is fun. And weird.

Malkmus has both reinterpreted his brief and is completely underprepared for it. I suspect this because after his first clip plays (the intro to a totally groovy ’60s film called Mickey One) he turns to his film professor co-host and says, “What do you want me to say about that?”. It’s a sentiment that he echoes after almost every clip that he has chosen, and you should imagine him doing this in a turbo-charged Malkmus fashion, which is to say slack enough to constantly slump back into his chair and, at one point, yawn mid-sentence and completely ignore it. At one point he says, “I just chose this clip because I like the film.” Others don’t feature music.

Things become particularly hilarious (and more for the right reasons) as he slowly veers from the type of cult cinema that most of us were expecting into moralistic made-for-TV movies from the 1980s about teenagers shoplifting. The next natural step is not even a TV show but a meme that Malkmus might well have found on the Metro here, of Hulk Hogan playing rock guitar spliced with boomerang’d clips of Barak Obama dancing with Ellen Degeneres. To that one he says, “That was intense,” by which time he is at least being purposefully dry. Bringing it home, his final clip isn’t even a clip; it’s the audio from an old porno (“Pretty sexy stuff”). Twice he says to the room, “We’ve all got things to do today,” and yet I would definitely see this again.   

Primavera’s bill featured a 50/50 gender split

As well aware of this as music fans are, it’s worth not just repeating time and again but mentioning how successful ‘The New Normal’ was in practice. Of course it was. 

For all those Primavera fans who baulk at the notion and refused to buy a ticket this year, I don’t believe that many of them were bothered by woman being equally represented as much as they were by the music that some of those women make. Not only does such rockist snobbery fail to appreciate what a festival as big as Primavera is attempting to do here for gender equality, it falls down on considering the logistics of booking a festival of this size, which in itself plays to the favour of a rock fan. That is to say that with guitar music still predominantly being made by men, Primavera were brave enough to book outside of their usual stable to dedicate half of this year’s bill to female artists, including some of the biggest stars on the planet. But as the bill is so big, anyone who was truly offended but Solange, Robyn or Christine and the Queens could have easily given them a wide birth for Primal Scream, Interpol and Stereolab. If doubters were more worried about the fans that such pop acts would attract (presumably young, ‘non-serious’ music almost-lovers – I’m aware I’m judging/projecting here) they couldn’t have been more wrong. For a festival that has always cultivated an accepting non-aggy audience, Primavera 2019 felt ultra relaxed and inclusive in the field, primarily because so many of the big sets were so joyous.

‘Nobody is Normal’ information points were set up around the site offering trained advice on identity and harassment, and a message of love was the most direct and common from stage too, spoken most beautifully by Janelle Monae and Christine and The Queens.

Plus, when Cardi B dropped off the bill a few months ago, it was Primavera’s chance to lose their nerve and appease their faithful, if not with the Pixies with someone like Patti Smith or St Vincent. Instead they booked Miley Cyrus, and you’ve got to respect a move like that.

FKA Twigs did the splits upside down 10 feet up a pole at 3am

This isn’t really the headline from Twigs’s performance – the rest of her performance is. In fact, the moment when she re-entered the stage in a bejeweled two-piece and recreated the acrobatic pole-dance from her ‘Two Weeks’ video to ‘Lights On’ – as incredible as it was, forcing a lot of the gobby crowd to finally shut the fuck up – was a little incongruous with much of what went before: Twigs, as often alone as she was with contemporary dancers in matching Les Miserables peasant blouses, mechanically juddering and occasionally locking in synch while her pin sharp voice sang arias about fucking. There are costumes and ‘scene changes’ and a solo dance piece with a samurai sword that cues a curtain drop to reveal a band on scaffolding borrowed from Stomp’s West End run. And it’s all overwhelming and so purposefully conceived, and a little pretentious here and there, but in the middle of it is Twigs’s singing – the way that that pulls you toward the stage at three in the morning is the real headline.

There’s fake grass at the main stages now

If you’ve not been to Primavera yet one thing you’ve missed is a main stage arena being in a rock quarry. There’s a lot of loose concrete at that end of the site (where the two biggest stages face each other) and I heard a rumour that last year there were a reported 21 Converse All Star fatalities because of it. Dominic Hayley, who was part of our writing team, even brought his Doc Martens shoes with him this year, and he’s a guy who likes to wear shorts. The point is, they’ve astroturf’d it for our comfort, and for Dom’s embarrassment.     

If we’re all honest, we liked Carly Rae Jepsen the most

For all the talk of ‘pop’ being the thing at Primavera, the two artists who remain the most true to that increasingly vague term – in the sense that they’re not trying to be ‘cool’ pop – are Miley Cyrus and Carly Rae Jepsen. Miley’s show was a bit like watching Bon Jovi, and she boldly opened with ‘Nothing Breaks Like a Heart’ which completely nullified her cover of ‘Joline’, by which time we were already making a b-line to see Low soundtrack the unravelling of the world in typical understated hysteria.

Nothing would have pulled us away from Carly Rae Jepsen though, who zipped through the best bits of her Emotion LP (I know, they’re all the best bits) with such momentum to propel us all through the new album cuts that she slipped in here and there. Just as you realised, ‘hang on, that song wasn’t on Emotion’, she’d play ‘Call Me Maybe’ or set off a confetti cannon, which I finally understand the appeal of. The trick is to stay up the night before, stand directly underneath it and cry. 

We liked Janelle Monae the most too

Directly after Jeppo on the facing stage Janelle Monae performed Dirty Computer live, with everything except for a confetti cannon.

She entered to the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey, rapped from a throne on ‘Django Jane’, had her backing dancers spray the crowd with Super Soakers on ‘Screwed’ and changed into her labia trousers for ‘Pynk’. There are other costume chances too, revolving around a monochrome and red colour scheme, while on ‘I Got The Juice’ three fans are pulled up to perform solo dance breaks which only encourages the rest of us to lose what little inhibitions we have left.

Late on, Monae takes the chance to speak openly about her sexuality and remind us that Donald Trump and his rhetoric is no more hers as an American as it is ours as Europeans living through our own conflicted time.

I was meant to go and see Suede an hour ago.        

There was this new thing with the cups    

Because plastic is the planet’s cancer Primavera introduced a new initiative this year that seemed annoying at first but, yeah, fair enough, we all stopped being babies about it.

For such a simple idea it took us all a surprisingly long time to get our heads round the idea that all drinks cost an extra euro if you weren’t returning or refilling your cup. So your first drink is 6€, say, and every one after that is 5€, providing you bring the cup back and either refill the same one or swap it for a fresh cup. The down side to all of this saving the planet is that you had to keep your empty cup with you when you weren’t drinking (so not very often then); and the up side was that there was hardly any litter on the floor, proved by the fact that if you could find 20 cups you were given a free beer, which, despite Dom trying all weekend, proved completely impossible.

Maybe if UK festivals adopted this system fewer of us would have been hit in the head by pints of piss, although maybe you can’t put a price on that type of fun.

Jarvis Cocker threw ‘a pack of badgers’ at his audience

Introducing his new solo project JARV IS, Cocker seemed particularly excited to be back on stage at Primavera, following Pulp’s first reunion show here in 2011.

The new songs – including the increasingly manic new single ‘Must I Evolve’ – are all really quite good; performed as a blur of kitchy-yet-spacey show tunes about things like the joys of house music and other more typical Jarvisism, most true to form when he breaks from a brilliantly warped version of Pulp’s ‘His N Hers’ to talk about how his biggest fear is that bit of fluff that refuses to go up the hoover. He takes this conversation to the front row to vox pop their great fear to predictably hilarious effect when his deadpan Northern wit is met with bemused faces.

Before this and the rather beautiful closing swell of ‘Running The World’ from his debut 2006 solo album, Jarvis was tossing sweets into the crowd including “a pack of badgers”, which he was surprised to find in his pocket. “Share those around,” he said, “you get five in a packet.”    

There were two brilliant new stages

Primavera are great refiners of their site at Par del Fòrum. As a returning festival goer it means that sometimes an element you loved that was new last year has vanished again, but also that that part you couldn’t stand has probably become better too.

The Hidden Stage (it’s never been really hidden at all) has bounced around a fair bit but this year found its best manifestation yet as it took on the shape of a wood paneled circular saloon, like you’d find in the middle of a theme park, with booths around its edge. Other than the Barbican-sized permanent auditorium that is sparingly used for more orchestral acts throughout the festival, the Hidden Stage is the only indoor space, which was perfect for Comet is Coming to deliver their cosmic prog jazz in at 2am on Friday morning.

Over in Primavera Bits (where much of the electronic music lives, and the lower bill hip-hop – Rico Nasty and her overzealous hype-man is particularly fun on the Adidas basketball court) an even better new stage has been build on the sand of the beach for the first time, looking directly out to sea. It’s here where Marie Davidson and Yaeji turn in brilliant sets with similar stage craft. The former plays increasingly hard techno compared to Yaeji’s easygoing house, but both split their time between mixing behind their decks and stepping out front to dance and, in Davidson’s case, get existential on us. 

We ended as we started, with Malkmus              

To be fair to Malkmus, he was much more engaged by his show on the same day that he made us watch a meme of Hulk Hogan and Barak Obama. And to his credit he’d flown across the world to do that.

On the final night more people were talking about Malkmus as it was announced across the stage jumbotrons that Pavement would reform to headline next year’s festival. For some, that might happily suggest that normal service will resume in 2020. And indeed it might. After all, how can any festival continue to book a bill like this year’s? It was absolutely massive, in size and stature. The ideology, you sense, is going to stick with Primavera. Some will no doubt be quick to point out if next year’s lineup falls short of a 50/50 gender split, punishing Primavera for at least doing it once more than any other major festival. The fact that it’s going to be so difficult is symptomatic of both societal and industry failings though, rather than it being one festival’s responsibly to keep making work or ignore it in the first place. What Primavera have ensured the press and their audience, though, is that they will continue to try. Some years that might mean 50/50, others 60/40, others countless fractions, but they are at least a huge festival with it at the front of their minds from now on.

Primavera Sound, Parc del Fòrum, Barcelona, 30 May – 1 June 2019. Additional photos: Sergio Albert and Eric Pamies.